With the regulatory spotlight focused on salt, bakery formulators have an enormous problem. In bread and other baked foods, salt plays crucial roles in dough strength, crumb structure and crust color as well as taste. But the sodium content, primarily from salt, of processed foods is a heated issue in the public forum. Since the early 1960s, the baking industry cut the sodium content of its products by 29%. Even so, its products account for 35% of sodium intake by Americans today.

THE ISSUE. On Nov. 29, the Food and Drug Administration held a public hearing about its policies concerning salt and sodium in foods. At the gathering, the American Medical Association repeated its call for strict limits on salt in processed foods. Food industry representatives, including the American Bakers Association (ABA), argued against such drastic steps. At the end of the day, however, FDA betrayed no indication it planned to revoke salt’s GRAS status or adopt labeling changes.

Testifying at the hearing, Lee Sanders, ABA’s senior vice-president of government relations and public affairs, observed, "A 25% reduction to meet a reduced-sodium health claim would dramatically impact flavor, as well as mixing and handling of the dough." In January, ABA’s Food Technical Regulatory Affairs Committee (FTRAC) examined the results of the FDA salt hearing.

"Most Americans get the bulk of their sodium from processed foods," said Paul Vajda, marketing manager, Cargill Food Systems, Minneapolis, MN, noting that consumers’ concern about sodium increases as they age, making them prime targets for foods claiming reducedsodium content, but he also pointed out that blood pressure in children is rising. "The market opportunity is to significantly reduce sodium, while maintaining taste and, even, developing better tasting products," he added.

This opportunity won’t be easy to snag. And today’s discussion of sodium is taking place as work starts on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

NUTRIENT AND NEED. "We have to try to get salt and sodium into better balance in our foods," stated Val Anderson, Mineral Resources International, Ogden, UT. Sodium is an essential nutrient. "We humans are hardwired to crave salt," he continued, "and historically salt has been rare [in our diets]." Part of the problem of balance is that modern humans consume twice as much sodium as potassium, a ratio that flipped during the 20th century. Before the late 1800s, people consumed many more fresh vegetables and fruit. "With current dietary patterns, we consume salt out of balance with other nutrients," he explained. "Sodium requires potassium and magnesium to function properly in the body."

Baked foods, and bread specifically, have come to be seen as important sources of sodium in the Western diet, despite salt levels being relatively low in bread, around 1 to 1.5%, according to Alan English, technical director, SOLO, The Low Sodium Sea Salt Co., Springfield, IL. (SOLO’s industrial product is manufactured and sold exclusively within North America by Nexcel Natural Ingredients, Springfield, IL.) "The real nutritional problem is the high levels of sodium being consumed," he continued. "Sodium comprises about 40% of common salt; therefore, by using salt alternatives such as SOLO with lower sodium levels, around 16%, lower sodium levels in finished products can be achieved while preserving the flavor and functional advantages of salt."

Salt is also an essential ingredient for bakers. As Mr. English explained, it controls yeast growth during the proofing process, affects crumb structure, adds color to the crust, adds flavor and controls spoilage, thereby increasing shelf life and reducing wastage. "A point frequently overlooked is that salt contributes to yield," he added. The removal of 1% salt from a bread formulation requires supplementation with another ingredient to make up the loss of weight. This makeup ingredient is likely to be flour, and such additions can cost much more than salt, thus raising total bowl costs.

"I see [reduced-sodium initiatives] moving toward responsible formulation but also toward more flavor," observed Greg Bach, business development director, Synergy Flavors, Inc., Wauconda, IL. "Salt shouldn’t be the only flavor enhancer in a food product."

LOWER-SODIUM SOLUTIONS. Many ingredient suppliers are working on reducing the sodium in processed foods. Cargill, for example, introduced its patentpending SaltWise sodium reduction system at the 2007 Food Expo of the Institute of Food Technologists. Morton Salt has long offered its Lite Salt Mixture, a blend of sodium chloride and potassium chloride. Flavor companies such as Givaudan, Synergy Flavors and WILD Flavors provide flavor potentiators that address the problem blandness that often accompanies sodium reduction.

Cargill’s SaltWise offers taste advantages and salt reduction up to 50%, according to Mr. Vajda. He cited the ingredient’s unique qualities: functions similar to salt, controls water activity, is stable to pH, heat and freezing and dissolves rapidly. It comes in granular form and as liquid blends. "SaltWise is not a 1:1 salt replacer, but an extender," he stated. To date, most applications have been topical, but bakery uses are being examined.

"Use of our Lite Salt Mixture can reduce sodium by as much as 50%," said Linda Kragt, technical services manager, Morton Salt, Chicago, IL. The company also supplies potassium chloride as a standalone material that can reduce sodium.

As part of its health and wellness initiative within Givaudan’s global research group, "each year we’ve introduced new versions of our TasteEssentials line of flavor modifiers to aid in the reduction and replacement of sodium in baked foods," said Jon Seighman, applications director, sweet goods, Givaudan Flavors Corp., Cincinnati, OH. "This is a really dynamic area for us."

The key problem with nonsodium salts is their bitter taste. "In our consumer sensory studies, approximately one-third of the population is sensitive to the bitter taste from potassium chloride," Mr. Seighman observed. This finding led the company to work with modifying salty taste perception without the use of potassium chloride. Taking this approach, Givaudan scientists have found success with sodium reduction up to 25%. "Our research programs are continuing, and we expect to improve our capabilities in this area," he added.

WILD Flavors decided to pursue an approach that could be used in conjunction with potassium chloride. Removal of salt and replacement with potassium chloride can cause negative attributes such as bitterness, metallic taste, loss of mouthfeel and a different perception of saltiness, according to Donna L. Hansee, senior director of marketing, WILD Flavors, Inc., Erlanger, KY. "SaltTrim, our proprietary technology, simultaneously blocks the negative tastes of potassium chloride while keeping the true taste and mouthfeel of salt," she said. SaltTrim can reduce sodium up to 50%, is temperature stable and can be labeled as a natural flavor.

"Everybody working on low-sodium foods has the same goal, but there are a wide variety of acceptance levels when it comes to flavor," said Mr. Bach. "Products like our Saporesse can compensate, but there is no ‘silver bullet’ for salt reduction." This ingredient, a lactic yeast extract, addresses salt’s taste rather than its functionality and can accomplish a 27% sodium reduction in white bread, he observed.

Saporesse enhances dairy notes and creamy flavor, and in lowersodium formulations, it helps mask the metallic taste of potassium chloride. "Bakers can use it as a savory salt reducer," Mr. Bach observed. As a salt reducer, it contains some potassium chloride, but if used solely as a yeast extract, the formulator is free to employ other low-sodium ingredient solutions.

Traditional yeast extracts are derived from bakers and brewers yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, according to Mr. Bach. "But we ferment a strain from the Kluyveromyces family, growing it on a lactose substrate," he said. "The extract is lactose-free. The yeast’s metabolic cycle consumes the lactose, and it is the yeast’s metabolites that yield the creamy flavor. It is very interesting to taste the difference."

SEA SALT WAVE. Increasingly popular with consumers, sea salt provides a high-mineral content answer. Using salt to replace salt may seem counterintuitive, but sea salt not only adds romantic consumer appeal but also supplies interesting nutritional and functional benefits. This is because of the minerals it contains. "[Sea salt] is mainly sodium chloride but also includes potassium chloride, magnesium chloride and other salts," Mr. Seighman said.

SOLO, a sea salt that contains 60% less sodium than conventional salt, is 16% sodium. "It also contains potassium and magnesium in place of the sodium, so it has approximately the same ionic strength as common salt," Mr. English explained. "It looks, handles and performs like common salt. It contributes to yield like common salt. It is more easily soluble than common salt, and this has advantages in the proofing process."

Because this low-sodium sea salt has osmotic properties similar to common salt, it acts like salt for most functional purposes, including controlling the yeast. It replaces regular salt on a 1:1 basis.

Ocean’s Flavor Low Sodium Sea Salts, Ashville, NC, currently furnishes lower-sodium sea salts to several bakeries in the US and internationally, according to Alan Fisher, president of Ocean’s Flavor. "In fact, baking was the first market we pursued," he noted. Customers benefit by being able to bake products with a healthier sodium alternative. "Plus, the salt going into the recipe is 100% natural," Mr. Fisher said, and he noted that healthier products can sell at higher prices, "which easily equates to increased profits."

FortiFlavor from Mineral Resources International is a low-sodium sea salt with a difference. Using a patent-pending process, the company turns sea water into an all-natural GRAS salt rich in magnesium and other naturally occurring trace minerals but low in sodium and potassium. "When you taste sea water, you taste salt, but you also taste the other minerals," Mr. Anderson said. "Our concept is to achieve a salty flavor through a combination of mineral salts." Use of this ingredient also benefits the finished product’s potassium and magnesium content and health potential claims.

By itself, FortiFlavor tastes strongly of minerals, but in formulations containing a bit of potassium chloride, it reproduces a rich, full salty flavor very effectively. Mr. Anderson described this phenomenon by comparing flavor to a musical chord. "If sodium chloride represents middle C, and potassium chloride is high C, then the mineral salts in FortiFlavor represent low C," he explained. "A chord played of only high and low C, without middle C, comes very close to the sound of the original 3-note chord. And thus it is with our lowsodium sea salt."

MAKING IT WORK. When attempting to reduce sodium in baked foods, formulators face several challenges. In yeast-raised breads, both white and whole-wheat varieties, other changes will occur. "Because potassium chloride has a lower ionic strength than sodium chloride, yeast breads that contain blends of salt and potassium chloride will have a shorter proof time," Ms. Kragt observed.

Mr. English noted, "We normally recommend substitution of SOLO low-sodium sea salt around the 1:1 level, with the expectation that there may be a need to fine-tune the level in the final mix."

Salt reduction can negatively affect baked foods in other ways. Ms. Hansee ticked off some of these results as bland taste, bitter notes, less-controlled fermentation, reduced crust caramelization, less-viscoelastic gluten, altered pH and less-consistent crumb structure.

Simple changes such as these suggestions for "tweaking" existing mix formulations can achieve modest cuts in sodium of up to roughly 15%. "If the baker is faced with the need to make substantial reductions, then another approach is required," Mr. English said. "There are many technologists who have made drastic cuts to salt levels only to produce unpalatable products. The products may have only 0.25% salt, but nobody wants to eat them."

To achieve functionality as well as taste in baked foods, Ms. Kragt recommended that blends of salt and potassium be substituted for salt at 25 to 50% by weight. "Evaluate various levels of potassium chloride substitution in your application," she advised as well. "Potassium chloride is formula specific, so certain formulas can tolerate higher levels of substitution." These include sweet goods. "Vanilla is also good masking agent for potassium chloride," she added.

Mr. Seighman recommended running a series of experiments to find out whether ingredients other than salt are contributing to the sodium content of the finished product. "The first thing is to understand where the sodium is coming from," he noted.